Noise-rock and Catholic guilt, plus a feral-looking guy making whooshing noises
I realised recently that it’s possible to track my enthusiasm for working from home by the quality of my lunch. Two years ago, my lunches were all baked eggs and artisan bread, but today my meal is simply a couple of slabs of Tesco mature cheddar stuffed between two slices of Hovis. Firing up Zoom to speak with Thank lead singer Freddy Vinehill-Cliffe, I can tell instantly that I’ve found someone who feels the same. Holding up a white bread sandwich, he looks almost crestfallen as he tells me that it’s just cheese with a dash of hot sauce.
“Do you remember when we used to make an effort?” he says with a knowing smile. I just nod.
Cliffe’s band is one of the unlikeliest success stories of the past couple of years. Beginning in Scarborough, where Cliffe, alongside fellow long-serving members Lewis Millward and Cameron Moitt first met and played in a variety of noisy punk projects, Thank formed when the trio moved to Leeds straight after uni. Inspired by metal and situationist noise acts like Blood Brothers, initially, they took an unapologetic approach to noise rock. Describing their sound as ‘stupid music made by geniuses’, their first two EPs stuck quite closely the hooky experimental punk formula. That all changed with the release of Please in 2019, which saw the band flip the script, dial down the brutality, and embrace Day-Glo pop. Now, with the launch of their debut album Thoughtless Cruelty on Box Records back in February, Thank has seemingly perfected this sound, creating what can only be described as a kind of mad melding of Pissed Jeans and Lady Gaga.
To find out what caused this turnaround, our story starts at the now sadly defunct Chunk Studios. An old warehouse on the outskirts of Leeds, this autonomous rehearsal space, gig venue, and workers’ co-operative was a proving ground for acts making anything weird, experimental, and noisy. Becoming something of a fixture on house gigs, as well as shows at the like-minded Wharf Chambers, the experience of sharing stages with the likes of Blacklisters and Pulled Apart By Horses introduced the members of Thank to an altogether more collaborative way of making music. Plugging into a scene with a furious appetite for experimentation and new thinking, Cliffe readily acknowledges that Thank owes a lot to this environment. “It was a big help that everyone was super open and approachable. I mean, Blacklisters were a big band for me when I was at school, so having Billy just grab you and pull you into conversations and introduce you to people was a really nice thing to happen; that’s for sure.”
Thank have often reached into this mixing pot as they honed a sound that is completely their own. A big part of that was the addition of synth player Theo Gowans; a fellow noise musician from Chunk whose improv project Territorial Gobbing has released an incredible 60 albums since 2014.
“It was weird really,” recalls Cliffe when I ask how Gowans ended up being in the band. “When we were a four-piece I always thought that we needed something else. For a long time, I was really into the idea of getting a sax player, but we weren’t really good enough mates with anyone who could play sax. Then, I remember meeting Theo, who was making this mad, disjointed pop and I thought it would be interesting to invite him to jam. That was the first big moment where I first thought, ‘Okay, yeah, this band makes sense now.’ It just needed this extra thing, and having a feral-looking guy making whooshing noises turned out to be that missing ingredient.”
On paper, the addition of Gowans should have made Thank even more unpredictable, yet implausibly the lean towards electronics has added a strange kind of structure to the band’s sound. Plastering psychedelic drone between the cracks made by monolithic-sounding guitars, the result has been to make the band’s more recent work sound relentlessly propulsive and sometimes, downright poppy. The band now bring a club-like energy to noise-punk, with their drone-laden jams landing like a brooding mix of ESG, Flipper and the wail of an angle grinder. “It’s very sexy music, actually,” Cliffe tells me, with a sly smirk as we discuss the band’s indirect evolution from metal to disco. He’s not entirely joking, either. Thoughtless Cruelty fizzes with energy that somehow manages to sound both weirdly sensual and deranged in equal amounts.
“I’ve always found the best noise rock to be almost horny music, but I think most people on the scene are a bit afraid of that aspect of it,” he continues. “I’ve always wanted this band to be quite sexy, but in a more of a self-conscious kind of way. I’ve always thought that was something a lot of ‘sexy’ music was missing – I mean, don’t get me wrong, I absolutely love Prince – but it’s very self-serious. It’s not what you want when you’re getting down to business – it’s like having your shift supervisor watching over your shoulder and checking that you’re doing it right. That’s why with this stuff we’re doing in Thank, while it can be quite sexual, it’s quite comic as well. I think that you need that willingness to laugh at yourself, otherwise it all ends up feeling like a cartoon.”
It’s strange then, that Thank chooses to juxtapose the sexiness with a dose of paranoia. Thoughtless Cruelty brims with brutality and groove in equal amounts. The press release describing it as “a stark observation on human cruelty filtered through the band’s grim fascinations”, it is an album that manages to hold contradictory positions on almost everything, with lyrics that can turn from self-aggrandising to self-loathing on a sixpence. Religion, in particular, and the connection between faith and self-worth is a major touchpoint. The band describe opening song ‘From Heaven’ as a partial reworking of the Latin verse from ‘Nearer My God To Thee’, and the writings of Saint Ignatius of Loyola are included in the list of inspirations, alongside more regular punk talking points like ‘business as usual’ liberal politics and the global rise of the far-right.
“Don’t get me wrong, my parents weren’t super uptight Jesus freaks or anything like that – but I was brought up a Catholic and went to mass every Sunday,” Cliffe explains when I ask him about the religious undertones that pepper Thoughtless Cruelty. “Looking back, I think I probably took it more seriously than my parents did. As a kid, I really internalised all the guilt and shame. I can remember the first time I swore as a ten-year-old and I ended up having a week-long freakout about it. It’s strange how that sticks with you. Even though no one ever pushed religion on me in any intensive way, it definitely has had a huge impact on my psyche, and I think a lot of this record is my reckoning with that and wrestling with the idea of having a more positive relationship with it.”
One of the most striking aspects of Thoughtless Cruelty is how it shows how powerful guilt can be, showing how it can manifest in other aspects of a person’s life. Cliffe’s lyrics are an exploration of inadequacy and a documentary of what happens when this is funnelled into toxic performative commitments. The song ‘Good Boy’ is a good example. Deadpanning his vocals over a thudding, neurotic-feeling beat, Cliffe’s lyrics channel the internal monologue of a guy desperate to be seen to be making the right moves but deliberately sneering at the meaning on the inside: “My life got much simpler when I made the wise decision / To only consume art which seeks to reinforce my place as a good boy.”
Cliffe is slightly cagey when I ask him about the inspiration for the song. “‘Good Boy’ is about a specific band, but I’m not going to tell you who it is. Let’s just say that there can be very performative approaches to DIY, and I think this is probably the case within the church as well. There are people in both camps who make a virtue of being virtuous and think that just being seen to have a certain quality is just as good, if not better than actually doing it. It’s the same in all walks of life, there are always people who want to take all of the plaudits and acclaim, but without having to do any of the work.”
Understandably, Cliffe is cautious when it comes to being critical of the DIY scene. After all, it’s a tricky beam to balance on. The welcoming, anything-goes atmosphere of the noise scene has been vital to the development of Thank and their recent popularity has been built on the recommendation and support of fellow acts like Idles and Yard Act. On the other hand, and as Cliffe is keen to point out, no scene is perfect, and ‘Good Boy’ is a song inspired by his own frustrations and desire to find ways things that could be done better – and he remains hopeful that they can.
“I mean look at Steve Albini,” he tells me. “When he first came out, he was a complete dick and it’s only maybe the past fifteen to twenty years that he’s been what someone might consider a good guy. He’s always been ethical in the way he operates in terms of music, but in terms of his personal politics and things like that, maybe not always, but what has been cool is that he openly admits that as well, I think it’s good that people are open to changing their ways. Scenes can sometimes be overzealous in their willingness to throw the whole person away, but actually, here’s a guy who’s a testament to the ability to change. He’s doing all the good shit now – he’s a positive force in the world.”
As our conversation comes to an end, I ask Cliffe if in some ways Thoughtless Cruelty has actually been an exercise in soul-searching – a way to re-examine beliefs and come to terms with the mistakes of the past. “Absolutely,” he answers, nodding resolutely. “I’ve spent a decade and a bit in the DIY scene, and in the past few years, I’ve found myself questioning my actions. I’ve always thought of myself as pretty right-on, but I’ve definitely been wrong about a lot of things. The trick is to be humble enough to realise that you can’t always be right and brave enough to accept change.”